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woman bed pillows frustrated insomnia hotel roomI set the alarm, switched off the lamp and plopped down into my hotel bed, so deliciously soft and inviting that it felt like landing on a cloud. Curling up into my mountain of pillows, I settled in for a much-needed night of shuteye … when there suddenly came a teeth-grating sound from next door. “Oh, my God!! Stop texting me! Stop it! No, you shut up! My grandmother will hear!”

I don’t know about Granny, but I could certainly hear the dulcet tones of my pre-teen neighbor in the next room, who appeared to be having her own personal slumber party at 12:15 in the morning. I gritted my teeth for 15 minutes or so, pulling the duvet over my head to block out the sound — but that just left me suffocating under the blankets while my neighbor’s whiny voice bored through the barrier like an angry mosquito.

I considered my options (besides wringing her skinny neck, which I quickly but reluctantly discarded). Should I pound on the wall? Call the front desk? Trudge out into the hallway, barefoot and squinting, to knock on her door and beg her to let the poor, tired grown-ups around her sleep?

I went with the first option. A rap on our shared wall and a polite “Could you please keep it down over there?” seemed to startle the girl into an abashed silence, and I finally drifted off to sleep.

The next day, I asked a hotel staffer whether I did the right thing. She said I could have called the front desk, who would’ve sent a security person up to the room to warn my noisy neighbor. Per this hotel’s particular policy, after three such warnings a guest would be asked to leave.

Good to know. But on my next trip, I’m adding something new to my packing list: ear plugs.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Istanbul, Turkey! This sprawling multicultural metropolis straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosporus Strait. Visitors can tour iconic sites such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia, and go shopping among the crowded, colorful stalls of the Grand Bazaar. Learn more about the city in Istanbul Essentials.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified place here, on our blog. Think you know where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Monday to see if you were right! Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right).

Hint: This city, subject of a well-known pop song, has survived multiple names and changes of empire.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane Is there something in the air? In this instance, the answer is yes. In the past few days, we’ve noticed a spate of reports regarding air travel that have left us overjoyed, irked or just plain exasperated. Let’s start with the exasperating one first and work our way down to a little good news.

Something’s not kosher here.

EasyJet, a budget airline based in the United Kingdom, has apologized to passengers bound for Israel after it mistakenly loaded a pile of pork products onto the aircraft. According to the Jewish Chronicle, passengers were offered “ham melts and bacon baguettes” during the flight, which originated in London. Other news outlets added that the airline normally serves kosher and vegetarian sandwiches on flights to Israel.

You wanted to go where?

An 80-year-old wheelchair-bound woman was inadvertently allowed to board a flight bound for Charlotte, N.C., when her destination was actually Dulles International outside of Washington D.C. The CNN report says the woman “allegedly received someone else’s boarding pass from a Delta Air Lines employee,” and then somehow made it through security and into the air with the mismatched ticket. The woman, who’s from Ethiopia and speaks no English, was reunited with her family on Sunday evening, hours after she arrived at the wrong destination. The airline and the TSA are investigating.

Well, we knew this was coming.

USA Today is warning travelers that the sudden rise in oil prices and increased overall demand for fewer seats will most likely lead to higher fares for both business and leisure travelers. It quotes airfare expert Tom Parsons as saying, “The higher the fuel goes, the more you’re going to have to pay. We could see another round of fare hikes very soon.” He says if you see a good sale for a summer fare, jump on it.

And, finally, some good news.

If you’re worried about whether you’re going to arrive safely once you set foot onboard a jet, an AOL Travel dispatch on a recent International Air Transport Association report should help put your mind at ease. “Airlines flying Western-built jets globally had the best safety performance in 2010 in the history of aviation, with only one crash per every 1.6 million flights,” it says, adding that “2.4 billion people flew safely in 2010 on 36.8 million flights, 28.4 million on jets and 8.4 million on turboprops.” There were 17 major crashes last year, compared with 19 in 2009; however, when Eastern-built jets are included, the overall number rises to 94 accidents — compared with 90 the previous year.

— written by John Deiner

broken suitcase “Hey, buddy, stuff’s falling out of your bag,” said a customer in line at the Denver Airport Hertz. My suitcase zipper was ripped, and I was leaving a trail of balled socks and rolled T-shirts.

US Airways had ruined my bag. But beyond ranting to strangers on the Internet (there are enough stories of satanic airlines taking pleasure in stuffing passengers into sardine cans, gleefully destroying baggage and watching us boil as we stumble through the customer service labyrinth), what recourse does a flier have when his bag is destroyed?

Like most airlines, US Airways requires that passengers report any damage to checked bags at the airport. With US Airways, this must be done within four hours. (Some carriers allow up to 24 hours, but the complaint still has to be made at the airport.) So I zipped back to the baggage claim.

“I’m sorry, sir, we see this happen all the time,” said the claim rep. She told me that airlines are not liable for damage to wheels, feet, zippers and extending handles. “When the baggage handlers throw the bags, the zipper rips off the fabric.” Do they see a lot of smashed zippers when they gently place the luggage on the belt? She obviously had no answer, but she gave me a number to call and register a complaint.

I was then told to e-mail my story to Central Baggage Resolution, a Phoenix-based office only reachable by e-mail. I imagine CBR as a digital bonfire that’s endlessly destroying correspondences. I learned that once CBR receives my claim, it’ll be 14 – 21 working days before I hear from them.

As I continue to hold my breath, I’ve started researching other ways to protect checked bags in the future. My plan of choice is simply to never check a bag, but here’s some info I found:

Both third-party insurers and credit card companies sometimes offer baggage insurance. American Express, for instance, offers free and for-fee baggage protection policies for card holders. I called Amex to learn about its $9.95 per roundtrip flight “premium” baggage policy, which covers checked bag damages up to $1,000. Here’s how it works, according to the customer rep: “File a claim with the airline at the airport. Get the denial.” Then file a claim with AmEx. The claim is reviewed with a licensed rep — but obviously there’s no guarantee that they’ll rule in your favor. The representative did say, however, that there are technically no exclusions for type of damage, ripped zippers included.

According to Smarter Travel‘s Ed Perkins, third party insurers can vary widely — and again, it’s up to fliers to start with the airline, get the denial (or some coverage if you’re lucky) and then file a second claim with the insurer. As always, it’s essential to read the fine print to see what the coverage cap is and if there are exclusions for certain types of damage.

Quite honestly, it all seems like a massive hassle. I paid $50 for someone to rip my bag, rendering it unusable without turning it into a silver mummy. I just want my $50 back. And maybe US Airways could throw in the $3.69 for the roll of duct tape.

Have the airlines ever lost or ruined your luggage? Share your story!

–written by Dan Askin

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Smarter Travel.

whale watching Whale watching can be the most exhilarating way to spend a day of vacation, or a sunburn-inducing time-suck that’s more aggravating than fulfilling.

Don’t blame the whales, of course. They’re not there to entertain you.

I’ve done more than my fair share of whale watching, and perhaps even a share for you as well. My wife is a marine-biologist-turned-travel-agent-turned-baker, so when we’re in a location that offers whale watching, we’re usually quick to jump onboard the nearest boat, from the Jersey Shore (yep, there are humpbacks out there) to Maui (where it’s now peak season for fluke-peeping).

So when I came across an item on the travel Web site Jaunted purporting to offer “Five Tips for Getting the Most from Going Whale Watching,” I had to take a gander. Suck down some Dramamine? Fine. Lower your expectations? Sure. Bring binoculars? Whatever.

All good tips, really. But here’s one admonition it didn’t include: Leave your camera at home. Okay, you can bring it with you, but don’t plan on using it. I know every budding photographer wants to capture Moby Dick breaching the briny surf, but you know what? You may miss the Big Moment.

I learned this the hard way. Ten years ago on the Oregon coast, my wife and I were whale watching in a tiny boat that was being buffeted by high seas. Our guide, a young guy who looked suspiciously like the Gorton’s Fisherman, expertly navigated out to what he said were prime whale haunts, then told us we we wouldn’t go in until we saw one. As the sea threw us around the boat, I clutched my camera, waiting for the Big Moment. Finally, the captain told us to look to the north, and I grabbed my camera, started to hold it up to my eyes … and completely missed the beast surfacing a few yards away. I’ll never forget what the kid said to me: “Put the camera away.”

Since then, we’ve probably been whale watching a dozen times, and each time I’ve put the camera away. In Maui, there were so many Big Moments (read: whales flopping out of the water all around us) that I wished, for a second, I’d brought my Nikon. So I asked another passenger if he could e-mail me some of his best shots.

Sure enough, a week later he sent me 10 photos, all of them either blurry or mere fragments of the actual event. Heck, I could have done that. …

— written by John Deiner

snoozeIt was 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and a 45-minute wait stood between me and my breakfast.

I was at Snooze, a celebrated Denver breakfast spot with five locations in the Mile-High City. Snooze is known for its cheeky out-of-the-box dishes, like red velvet pancakes, breakfast pot pie and breakfast tacos. But the eatery’s also notorious for its very long lines.

I thought I was clever to show up at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but one has to wake up pretty early in the morning to outsmart Snooze’s hungry mobs. There was a throng of mostly 20-somethings, cups of coffee in hand, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk. The hostess informed me that I would be seated in 30 to 45 minutes. Wisely, Snooze serves free coffee to waiting patrons, and breakfast cocktails are available at the bar.

I grabbed some coffee and loitered for the better part of an hour, poring over skiing magazines on a heated porch while my companion slurped a Bloody Mary. Despite cold hands and a rumbling stomach, the wait was worth it. I ordered the Benedicto Tuscano, a hunk of French bread topped with a ragout of tomatoes, white beans, kale and squash; two poached eggs; cream cheese hollandaise sauce; and shaved parmesan. Our waiter brought us a cinnamon pancake with pecan butter on the house. I would have waited twice as long.

I had discovered Snooze on TripAdvisor. As of this posting, Snooze is ranked 11th of restaurants in Denver, and dozens of reviews mention the eatery’s discouraging wait time and crowds. But the restaurant’s reputation as a perpetually packed house is what attracted me.

In Finding the Best Restaurants on the Road, travel expert Ed Hewitt writes, “It may be counterintuitive, but in some cases it pays to follow the crowds — if perhaps not the tourist crowds. If you find a busy restaurant, chances are good that it is busy for a good reason. … At the very least, your meals will likely be fresh, as high volume usually means food does not sit long.”

A line that curls around the block may look daunting, but it’s a sure sign of a crowd-pleasing culinary treasure. If you can’t stand to stand around for a spell, eyeball the hours posted on the restaurant’s door, and arrive right when the place opens. If the restaurant serves dinner and lunch, show up at 3 p.m. for a snack. Don’t flee from the crowds — follow ’em and then come back at a better time.

How long would you wait for a table at a sought-after restaurant?

–Written by Caroline Costello

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Group, an operating company of Expedia, Inc.

cancun mexico Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: The clock is ticking! This JetBlue spring fare sale includes dirt-cheap tickets to destinations in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico, but seats must be booked by 5 p.m. E.T. today. Flights to popular places like Las Vegas, New York, Nassau, San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, Montego Bay, Cancun and Washington D.C. start at $29 each way plus taxes and fees.

This sale features a wide spring travel window: fly from March through May. And don’t forget that each JetBlue passenger may check up to one bag for free.

The Catch: This sale’s limited run is its most glaring restriction. If you don’t have any travel planned for the next few months, booking a ticket on a whim today can be a bit of a Hail Mary pass. JetBlue’s deal includes some deliciously low-priced spring flights. But prices aren’t so low that you should snap up tickets before you’ve thought your travel plans through carefully. Put down the paper bag — you’ve still got a few hours left to sort things out (as of this posting).

There’s a second catch, unfortunately. Travel is only valid, at these prices, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Fares for travel on other days of the week won’t be as economical.

The Competition: AirTrain Airways, which scored top travel deal last week, has just announced a systemwide fare sale with tickets starting at $49 each way. Prices don’t beat JetBlue’s cut-rate fares, but AirTran offers a wider range of spring travel dates (fliers aren’t restricted to Tuesdays and Wednesdays), plus a larger selection of destination and departure cities.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Airfare Deals.

–Written by Caroline Costello

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Mt. Fuji, Japan! At more than 12,000 feet, this volcano (which last erupted in the early 1700’s) is Japan’s highest and most iconic mountain. If you’re not up for hiking to the summit, you can catch a glimpse of the famous peak from one of five nearby lakes — but be warned that the mountain is often wreathed in clouds. Learn more about Mt. Fuji in Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations.

Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified place here, on our blog. Think you know where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Monday to see if you were right! Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right).

Hint: This peak is one of its country’s “Three Holy Mountains.”

Leave a comment below to guess the destination!

— written by Sarah Schlichter